Scott Frankel’s favorite memories of New York gay restaurants aren’t about food.
Universal Grill launched “Dancing Queen” on birthdays. There was this insanely hot Italian waiter at the Food Bar. Florent was on the corner of a notorious sex club in the slaughterhouse district. Manatus was so cheerful, he had a nickname: Mana-tush.
Gay restaurants, said Mr. Frankel, the Tony-nominated composer of the musical “Gray Gardens”, “made you feel like you belong.”
But all of those places he so fondly remembers have been closed for a long time, as have Harvest, Orbit’s and several others listed in an article titled “Restaurants That Roll Out the Welcome Mat for Gay Dinners,” which appeared in this newspaper 27 years ago. years. It now reads like an obituary.
Restaurants are retreating all the time, perhaps nowhere more than in New York, and perhaps never as much as in the days of Covid. The pandemic has hit urban gay restaurants particularly hard across the country, said Justin Nelson, president of the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce. MeMe’s Diner, a popular queer restaurant in Brooklyn, closed permanently in November, citing closure measures and a lack of government support.
Gay restaurants, like gay bars, also face crises of identity and purpose in a time that is in many ways more welcoming than in the past, when homosexuals sought out gay restaurants because they offered security and an acceptance that could not be found elsewhere.
The lesbians made their way to Bloodroot, a still-popular vegetarian restaurant in Bridgeport, Connecticut that grew out of the 1970s lesbian feminist movement. Gay men frequented places like Orphan Andy’s, a campy restaurant from the same decade that still stands. operating in the Castro district of San Francisco. Atlanta had Waterworks, which a 1992 bulletin for the Black and White Men Together group called “the only black-owned gay restaurant.”
Today, many LGBTQ Americans feel free to be fully themselves in almost any setting. And the changing conceptions of sexuality and gender extend beyond what words like gay, lesbian, male or female can accommodate.. A gay restaurant might just seem fuddy-duddy.
“A lot of the more privileged queer youth have grown up with inclusion, so they don’t feel the need to be in a place where you’re safe from heterosexism,” said Julie Podmore, urban geographer at the ‘Concordia University in Montreal.
This may be the case in New York City, where gay restaurants are following the dinosaurs’ trail (if they’re not extinct yet – Elmo and other places continue to nurture their gay fan base).
But elsewhere in the country, many gay restaurants are thriving – as valuable local businesses, de facto community centers, havens from continued anti-queer violence, and potential avenues for a recovering restaurant industry.
On a recent Saturday night in Washington’s Dupont Circle neighborhood, Annie’s Paramount Steak House was packed and gay. Two fathers and their two children ate at a table in an outdoor area adorned with rainbows. Three homosexuals in their twenties shared fries. An older couple smiled as they watched a clip of the musical “White Christmas” on a phone.
Georgia Katinas, the general manager, who is 33 and straight, oversaw the hubbub. His grandfather, George Katinas, son of Greek immigrants, opened Annie’s in 1948 at a different location, the Paramount Steak House. Ms. Katinas says no one in her family is gay, but Annie sure is. This seed was planted by her great aunt Annie Kaylor.
Annie was a supporter beyond the gay community and became, for many of the restaurant’s ethnically diverse diners, a mother figure before her death in 2013. In 2019, when Annie’s received an America’s Classics award from the James Beard Foundation, the restaurant critic David Hagedorn wrote how, in her early days, Annie “walked up to two men holding hands under the table and told them they were invited to hold hands above”.
Now that indoor meals have resumed, Ms Katinas said “people come back with tears in their eyes” because they “missed being in a space where they are not the only gays.”
Derrin Andrade and Zack Sands weren’t looking for a gay restaurant when they moved to Dupont Circle four years ago. Now, the biracial married couple are regulars at what Mr Sands, 30, has called “a home more than a restaurant”.
“You can feel the loyalty in Annie, and it makes you want to recognize it,” he said. “You want to be a part of it when you see people coming back for a reason. “
For Steve Herman, 79, who has eaten at Annie’s since 1976, that reason is the fact that Dupont Circle is not as gay as it used to be.
“I think it’s a good thing that gay people are more traditional and comfortable going elsewhere,” he said. “But I’m missing a neighborhood and a restaurant that I own. “
Carla Perez-Gallardo, 33, never intended to be a queer destination when she and Hannah Black opened Lil ‘Deb’s Oasis five years ago in Hudson, NY. among residents and queer visitors even if it doesn’t advertise, relying instead on word of mouth and social media.
“I happen to be queer, and it turned out that way and it’s joyful,” said Ms. Perez-Gallardo, who, along with Ms. Black, was a semi-finalist for the 2019 James Beard Award for Best. chief: Northeast.
The restaurant is set to reopen its dining room on Friday night after a six-month hiatus, serving sweet plantains, pork tamales and lamb kebabs in a bright and playful space that Ms. Perez-Gallardo calls “campy and kitsch.” He sells shirts bearing the words “Tasting Good” and “Tasting Gay”.
“If there’s one way that food is weird, it’s because it’s not homogeneous, it’s lateral and multiple,” Ms. Perez-Gallardo said. “It is also quite definitive of our space and our philosophy.”
Historian George Chauncey traces New York’s gay dining venues to the inexpensive urban dining halls that housed single workers in the late 19th century. In the 1920s and 1930s, police often raided cafeterias like Horn & Hardart, where gay men gathered to “ridicule the mainstream culture that ridiculed them and build an alternative culture,” as Mr. Chauncey writes. in his book “Gay New York. “
In 1959, 10 years before the Stonewall Riots, what historians consider to be modern America’s first queer uprising erupted at Cooper Donuts in Los Angeles, where LGBTQ people repelled a police raid using coffee and cigarettes. donuts as projectiles.
In the 1980s, Florent was a haven for New York homosexuals during the worst years of AIDS. Owner Florent Morellet recalled in a recent interview that after learning he was HIV positive in 1987, he posted his T cell counts on reused menu boards that faced the dining room – a message coded solidarity to its customers.
“I have met people several times who have said: ‘Florent, you don’t know me, but at that moment I was positive and in the closet and I did not tell anyone about it,” said M. Morellet, 67 years old. “They said,“ When I came to your restaurant where you wrote your T cell numbers on the board, I felt everything was fine. ”He tried to say more, but choked on him.
In Green Bay, Wisconsin, the Napalese Lounge and Grille looks as cheerful as cheese curds. When straight couples bring kids into the unpretentious brick building for weekend chicken offerings, the place looks more like an Applebee than it does the Mineshaft.
Now nearly 40 years old, Naps, as regulars call it, is Green Bay’s oldest gay bar and restaurant, according to Arnold Pendergast, 61, who owns it with her husband, Stacy Desotel, 56, since 2012. This is where LGBTQ locals congregate. for charity shows and to watch Packers games around baskets of beer-fattened, crispy cod, as it’s one of the few gay options in town. (You don’t hear much “queer” in Green Bay.)
Mr. Pendergast, who is called Butch, calls his place “a comfort”.
“The prices are reasonable and you can grab a burger or play Donkey Kong or cribbage,” he said.
Martha, who requested that her last name not appear in this article because she is not fully transgender, used to drive to Chicago “to avoid violence from people who don’t understand what it means to be transgender ”.
She now holds a monthly meeting in Naps for trans people in the area who she says “are in desperate need of safety.” She is part of a group working to bring a new outdoor mural to Naps this summer that will feature it as an LGBTQ space.
Jeremiah Moss, author of “Vanishing New York,” said restaurants like Naps oppose the idea that queer people “don’t need space anymore because we have the Internet.”
“If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that getting connected digitally is not enough,” especially for working-class gays, he said, like those in Naps. “We have to be in spaces with each other because otherwise we don’t quite exist.”
If there’s one restaurant that’s leading the way for queer dining, it’s Laziz Kitchen in Salt Lake City. Moudi Sbeity founded the Mediterranean restaurant in 2017 with Derek Kitchen, then her husband, elected a year later to the Utah State Senate.
Mr Sbeity, 33, prefers to call Laziz a queer restaurant, not gay, to signal “that we are included in love”. The pride flag flying outside is the redesigned version with added stripes for the trans community and people of color. The bathrooms are mixed. A poster at the entrance welcomes the refugees.
Even Red State politics don’t stand between a customer and Laziz’s grilled halloumi. “We’ve had a lot of people supporting Trump and wearing Trump hats, and we don’t miss a moment to welcome them and offer them food and kindness,” said Mr. Sbeity, who grew up in Lebanon. and moved to the United States in 2006.
Nan Seymour, a regular, swears by the hummus, beetroot and muhammara trio. She dines there often, sometimes with her trans daughter, and thinks she should support the restaurant’s mission.
“The flaw in our current culture is cisnormative and heteronormative white supremacy, and it’s not safe for people who are not in these privileged majority groups,” Ms. Seymour said, her voice broken. “It is essential for us to know that we can be in a restaurant and not worry about how it will be for my daughter when she goes to the bathroom.
Jen Jack Gieseking, a geographer of urban culture at the University of Kentucky, Lexington, said that like Laziz, future queer restaurants will be intersectional, especially when it comes to gender. The servers will not accept pronouns. Men will not necessarily receive the check.
“We will see more attention on how to create an anti-racist space,” said Mr. Gieseking, author of “A Queer New York”. “People will consider who delivers your food and who made your food.”
“Not all of these restaurants will be great,” he added. “But these will be projects that make the change, and that’s exciting.”